Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I Wouldn't Murder the Fat Man

I really hate the thought experiment about the fat man and the trolley. I hate it so much I don't even want to recount it, but I guess if I want to write about it, I probably should. You're standing on a bridge next to a very fat man. You see a runaway trolley careening toward five people. They are too far away to hear you, so you can't yell a warning to them. Apparently, you're a total sicko, so it dawns on you that the only thing to do is push the man next to you off the bridge, derailing the trolley. You'll end his life, but save five others. Do you do it?

I get it. You're supposed to ask yourself why it would bother you more to directly kill one person than to stand passively by while five people die. Still, I can't stand the way it's framed. There's always an unspoken implication that it's just cowardice stopping you from killing that guy you don't know.

The question no one seems to ask is, if you're so noble, why don't you throw yourself in front of the trolley? If you aren't willing to do that, why would there be anything laudable about deciding the guy next to you should?

Of course, this is why the man next to you is fat. You, presumably, are not, so you wouldn't derail the train. Plus, what's he doing being obese, anyway? Does he really have any right to just stand there, being fat, while five thin people die? I find the physics of this questionable. You don't have time to calculate trajectory of the projectile, so it's a crapshoot.

BRIEF HOUSE OF CARDS SPOILER NESTED IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH.

However, I am overweight, although presumably not as morbidly obese as the man next to me. Being short and female, it's likely I do weigh considerably less than he does, and won't do as good a job of derailing the train as he would. But this comes with its own set of challenges - I won't have an easy time pushing him off the bridge. I certainly can't do it in one quick movement, like SPOILER ALERT Frank Underwood pushing Zoe Barnes in front of a subway. He'll probably notice and object, an altercation will ensue, and best case scenario, I'll be thrown off the bridge. This would be the most desirable outcome, as not only would one person would be sacrificed in order to save five, but the guy who pushed me off the bridge could honestly say he acted in self-defense, relieving both him and the rest of society from wrestling with any sort of moral dilemma. He was attacked by a madwoman, accidentally pushed her off the bridge, and - serendipity! - managed to derail a trolley that was about to kill five innocent people.

Failing that, maybe we'll wrestle and we'll both fall, upping the chances of a successful derailment. Two people die instead of one, but five are saved, so we're still ahead by three. The decision maker is dead, and the odds of this becoming a decision people have to make on a regular basis are quite slim, so there's no need for anyone to worry about whether or not it was right.

Really, try explaining your decision to push the person next to you off a bridge, even if it did save five lives. It will not be well received. How do you know the fat man isn't the only surgeon in the world who knows how to perform a life-saving procedure that saves five people every day? Because if he is, I'm afraid you'll have egg on your face.

So I think the answer is clear. If you're too yellow-bellied to throw yourself in front of a train, provoke someone else into doing it. It's the only justifiable solution.

Friday, April 18, 2014

You Never Know

I must confess a certain passion for fancy grocery stores. I try to stay away, but my local fancy grocery store draws me there again and again. It was there that I met a bagger I'll call Jason. "Met" implies I know him well. I don't. I know nothing about him at all, aside form the fact that he appears to be developmentally disabled, and, at the risk of sounding a bit of an asshole, he seems very cheerful and happy. Jason has worked there for a long time. I'd guess him to be in his early to mid 20s, blond and good looking.

It seems to me that he likes everyone and everyone likes him. He does a good job. I've never personally witnessed him do anything wrong.

So I was surprised one day when he was bagging my groceries, and the checker just would not stop nagging him to focus and "stop looking over there." I thought he was focusing well enough. I looked over there and saw a pretty girl.

"Jesus. He's got a crush on that girl over there, lady. Would you please stop drawing attention to it and embarrassing him?" I was quite irritated, although it was pure projection. I had no evidence at all that he was embarrassed, and my belief that he had a crush on that girl certainly wouldn't have held up in court, either.

"Jason," she admonished again, "you don't need to be worrying about what's going on over there."

Jason didn't seem bothered at all, just smiled and tried to keep looking on one direction (something I myself could never do). It's entirely possible that no one was offended but me.

When he was done, the checker told me, "Jason will help you out to your car."

I was once a grocery bagger myself, and I know helping people out to their cars is no imposition. It's a welcome change of scene. But even knowing what I know, I absolutely loathe being helped to my car. I cannot stand the awkward, 45-second walk. So I weakly protested, but either they didn't hear me, or they pretended not to.

On my next visit, I happened to come through the same checker's line again. This time, Jason was more excited than I had ever seen him. He looked like he might actually jump out of his skin with joy. Generally a pretty smily person, on the day in question he couldn't have stopped beaming if he'd tried.

He asked me what I had planned for that night, but it was just a pretext for him to tell me about his plans. It was The Mariners' opening day. While he told me all this, he continued to bag my grocers, again doing what I felt was a fine job. Once again, the checker nagged him to focus, and once again, it seemed to have no impact on his mood at all, only mine. Jason was still walking on air.

I bristled, and considered intervening, or even calling the manager later to complain. Once again, when we were done, the checker said, "Jason will help you out to your car." It was more of an order than an offer, and directed at me as much as him.

"No, I'm fine, I can manage," I protested.

"Let him take your groceries to your car," and, since I obviously needed it spelled out for me, "This is a good job for him to have. If he has nothing to do, they'll let him go."

Oh. Oh.

While I'd been a missionary-style busy body, she'd been trying to protect him all along. Was she going about it correctly? I can't say. But I can say that my meddling would not have done anyone a bit of good. At best, it would have done nothing, but at worst, I cringe. I didn't know him, I didn't know her, and I didn't know a damn thing about what was up.

The point is, you never know.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Frozen Has No Feminist Implications, but Its Main Characters Still Deserve a Little Compassion

I liked Frozen. I even somehow, inexplicably, related to Frozen. When I saw it, months after everyone else did, I cried through half of it. I don't have a good grasp on why. Presumably there are reasons for this, reasons I should probably address on my own. For now, I can only say that I was sad for Anna, and sadder for Elsa.

When I read this article, I hadn't seen the movie yet, so I didn't have an opinion on whether or not it deserved all the accolades it was receiving. It is, however, my instinct to defend such critiques against those who complain "WHY do we have to analyze everything? You put this much thought into a children's movie?"

Two reasons. First, analyzing films and conducting studies on various trends provides us with valuable information.  As parents, we actually care what kind of messages are being crammed into our children's heads. Does one film matter? Not really. But the accumulative messages conveyed by all the media our kids will consume over the course of their lives does.

Secondly, some of us just enjoy analysis. It's fun for us. It takes almost no effort at all. If you don't fall into that camp, don't bother. Problem solved. Go find your own fun.

However, even I, who positively loves to pick apart every detail of any kind of narrative, felt Dani Coleman was laying it on a little thick with The Problem With False Feminism. After I saw the movie and read it again, I felt that way even more. I found myself having thoughts I usually can't stand to hear expressed, such as "It's just a movie. You're taking this a little seriously."

Even so, I was disagreeing with some of her points with equal fervor, and taking it just as seriously as Coleman did. Because that's how I roll, and that's apparently how she rolls, too. We have that in common. As a matter of fact, I agree with her assertion that the praise Frozen has received is over the top. It's not revolutionary or especially progressive. It's certainly not subversive. There is one slight deviation from the typical fairly tale, a two-second long interaction toward the very end. As touching as it is, if you blink, you'll miss it. Frozen is no radical feminist manifesto. However, it isn't anti-feminist or falsely feminist, either. It's neutral.

It's not the movie I want to defend, though. It's the characters. Dani Coleman's criticisms of Anna and Elsa are mighty unforgiving. Coleman has set a standard so impossible and unreasonable no one could ever live up to it, and then gotten angry with the two lead characters for failing to do so. So harsh is her article that I felt the need to leap to Anna and Elsa's defense, even though they don't really exist. Are they good role models? We don't have enough information to say. While Coleman charges that they're emotionally crippled, morally bankrupt, socially inept, unintelligent and have poor judgement, we can only judge them based on their handling of a situation so dire and unheard of there is no blueprint for handling it well.

Now, these characters are poorly developed. Not because it's a bad movie, but because it's strongly plot-driven. We know very little about Anna's or Elsa's personality, because we rarely see them outside of a crisis situation, and that mostly happens during a montage designed to give us a sense of what their childhood was like. Anna pines away for Elsa on one side of the door, while Elsa stands on the other, unable to explain why she can't open up. It's as hard for Elsa as it is for Anna. So painful she grows to resent Anna for making her do it, over and over.

So many of Coleman's assertions are based on information we don't have. But that won't stop me from doing a character analysis, because after the beating they took from Dani Coleman, Anna and Elsa deserve a little compassion.

What we do know is this. These two sisters are the victims of either terrible parenting, evil trolls, or both, and all of their actions can be easily understood when we keep this in mind. "Personal responsibility!" you protest. "People need to stop blaming their parents for everything. Stop whining and take charge of your own life. Blah, blah, blah, soundbite, soundbite, soundbite." Let's get one thing straight. People have good reasons for being who they are. Not excuses, reasons. I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it again and again, as long as there are people in the world who don't get it.

Elsa and Anna in particular have lived in isolation in a castle for all of most of their lives. They do not have other influences or role models. They have zero life experience and they don't know anybody. Coleman, however, seems to feel that having problems that are a totally expected response to your life experience means you're a traitor to all womankind.

Anticipating this argument, Coleman claims Anna has only been isolated for three years, from the time of her parents' deaths to the time of Elsa's coronation.

But think about it logically. After the ice incident as children, Elsa may be isolated — both by her parents and by her own fear — but there’s no reason for the King and Queen to isolate Anna too.

Never mind that an extended period of isolation is well known to be psychologically devastating, and three years is inarguably an extended period. If we're going to think about things logically, you know what people can't do? Create snowstorms, or cast icicles with their fingers. Frozen relies heavily on its artistic license. If we're going to think about it logically but in context, if Anna wasn't forced into isolation when her parents were alive, why on earth would she be after they died? She's obviously not one to withdraw when times are hard. There is no reason for Anna's parents to have isolated her, it is not compatible with their royal duties, and yet it is strongly implied that they did. Why? Because the entire plot depends on Anna being desperately lonely. Period. Evidence for this appears in both Anna's initial "I wish" song, which is not "For the First Time in Forever", but "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" She says she's so desperate for company that "I've started talking to the pictures on the walls." Later, when her parents leave for their fatal voyage, Anna reacts as if they are her only company. Because they are.

Coleman compares Anna unfavorably to Rapunzel, Jasmine and Aurora, which is not only an emotionally unevolved way of looking at things (people are different - deal with it), but doesn't take into consideration that Rapunzel is impossibly well-adjusted, we have no reason to believe Jasmine's isolation differed from anyone else of her station, and Aurora grew up in an unconventional but very loving situation. She was the darling of not one, but three fairy godmothers who adored her.

The family in Frozen are a the very model of a secretive, dysfunctional family. This may be the parents' fault, but it's also entirely possible that they, too, are the victims of a band of trolls who have hatched a long-range plan to take down the royal family. In which case, heaven help Anna when her relationship with Kristoff unfolds. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. If Kristoff does turn out to be bad news, should Anna be further maligned, or should she be offered the same compassion we would (hopefully) offer anyone who has suffered two abusive relationships in a row? I would suggest the latter.

The trolls' intentions do seem suspect. What's with erasing Anna's memory of Elsa's magic, but preserving her memory of how much fun they used to have? How could this possibly be in anyone's best interest? It guarantees Anna will know she's been abruptly abandoned, but have no way to process it, thus internalizing Elsa's rejection. If I'm to give the troll the benefit of the doubt, I'd say the intent was to halt the danger but preserve the relationship, one more thing king and queen royally screwed up.

Ultimately, both sisters seem to have significant attachment issues. Elsa is overly suspicious, while Anna is overly trusting, seeking connection anywhere she can find it. Because really, what's the difference? She has no way of understanding appropriate boundaries. The only difference between a complete stranger and an immediate family member is that a complete stranger hasn't betrayed her yet.

Furthermore, the troll who revived Anna implies that Elsa's power/affliction is unusual, but not unheard of. So why didn't he offer Elsa and her parents any kind of guidance? Either he did and the king and queen were too proud to accept, or he could have, but didn't. Once again, if Elsa and Anna's parents weren't being grossly negligent, or the trolls are out to get them all. Why were their parents so negligent, aside from the fact that it was necessary to move the plot along? The same reason any parents neglect their children. Sometimes out of indifference, but more often because they do not have the internal and/or external resources they need to properly meet their children's needs. In this case, Elsa's parents were at a loss for what to do with their ice-princess daughter, and even if they were offered help, they didn't feel they could accept it.

Coleman accuses Anna of being unintelligent, and Elsa of "cripplingly self-repression". Of course, she's right about Elsa's repression, and in her sole moment of generosity, she acknowledges it isn't Elsa's fault. One wonders why she has decreed that this one road block out of so many isn't entirely a self-created character flaw, but it doesn't matter. Even with her small nod to the possibility one of Elsa's problems is a logical response to her situation, Coleman's doesn't lay off the harsh judgement. Not even a little bit.

We have no way of knowing if Anna is intelligent. Coleman feels she's a bad role model because she leaves the house without a coat. We know she displays exceedingly poor judgement during the roughly 24 hour period in question, but does that necessarily mean she's stupid? How on earth would she know how to handle anything at all? No, she is not remarkably resourceful, but how could she be? Necessity is the mother of invention. Having all of her material needs more than taken care of, Anna has, up until the day she is called upon to embark on her hero's journey, never had the opportunity or the need to be Rosie the Riveter. Although her emotional needs are as neglected as her physical needs are provided for, Anna is unprepared for the challenge that is suddenly thrust upon her. You would be, too. Her impulsiveness could be an understandable product of her situation, age and personality. Everything but leaving Hans, a man she'd met a few hours ago, in charge of the kingdom in her absence, is forgivable. That was bad. But again, Anna has attachment issues. She truly doesn't know any better.

Anna is rude to Kristoff. True. Conversely, Kristoff is rude to Anna. This is because they're coming from the same place; both terribly under-socialized. Assuming he's presenting himself honestly, in Kristoff, Anna has found the soul mate she thought she had in Hans. He's someone who instinctively understands where she's coming from, because his past isn't so different from her own.

Most outrageously, Coleman accuses Elsa of having antisocial personality disorder. In laymen's terms, she's calling her a sociopath, and it's absolute nonsense. Yes, she causes great destruction, but she is responding to a threat like a cornered animal every time. She's unaware of some of the harm she has caused, but feels terrible about anything she knows about. We're not just talking guilt here, but deep deep-seeded shame. Saying she takes no responsibility for her "actions" is laughable. What exactly does Coleman propose she do? Elsa doesn't know how to control her powers, and has even less an idea of how to undo what she's done. If she had caught an infectious disease and set off an epidemic, would we call her a sociopath? Would she be refusing to take responsibility for her actions if she didn't somehow magically cure everyone who caught it? 

Part of the problem seems to be that, after fleeing the kingdom, Elsa allows herself a brief period of happiness for the first time since she was maybe six years old. Yep, that is one evil Snow Queen. 

Avoidant? Well, yeah. First of all, Elsa rightfully believes she will only make things worse for everyone by staying. Secondly, she probably would have been burned as a witch if she hadn't run. It's hard to fault her for not staying to face the music under those circumstances.

The bottom line is, having problems doesn't make one a feminist nightmare of a poor role model. Battle scars aren't evidence of weakness. If a girl sees the film and looks up to either sister, it will be for qualities she has projected onto her, because we never get a real sense of who Anna and Elsa are. A child's takeaway is confidence, forgiveness, and the idea that true love's kiss need not be romantic. You'd best think twice before you hand your life over to some perfect-seeming prince charming. If it seems too good to be true, it is. This is something responsible parents tell their children, which may explain why Anna didn't know. And of course, we make sure children understand that none of this adds up to a hill of beans if you aren't drop dead gorgeous, because as far as almost all media is concerned, that's just true.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

This is a Farce

I'll admit to occasionally embellishing a story, but every word of this is 100% true. In fact, it has all been even more ridiculous than I am making it out to be. 

It all began a few weeks ago, when my family and I were watching the first episode of Cosmos. My 6-year-old son Jay was sitting on my lap, and he suddenly started scratching his head. "Strange," I thought. "I hope he doesn't have lice."

I didn't think he did. Not because I had any reason to think we were safe - in fact, I'd recently gotten a letter from his school portending exactly this. Nope, it was pure arrogance. An unshakable belief that defies all evidence to the contrary. When it comes to mishaps both large and small, Ima be just fine. No lice.

Over the next few minutes, my faith was shaken. He was scratching his head more furiously by the minute. I turned on the light and started to check, and there they were! Two, right on the back of his shirt. I ripped the shirt off his body and told my husband to take it to the laundry, while I got to work checking Jay's head.

I'd had lice once before, in my mid-20s, before I had kids. I had quite a nice nit comb to show for it, so I dug it up and started combing the lice out of my son's head.

My previous bout with lice had been brief, relatively painless, and successful. That, in addition to the bedbug epidemic, has cured me of any fear I ever had of them. They're weak, and surprisingly fragile. They can't survive long without a human host, and you don't even need to wash everything in hot water. It's the dryer that kills them. They've only survived the evolutionary process because they're so hard to see. Still, while I worked on Jay's head, my husband Jeremy ran around the house, stripping beds and starting laundry.

When I finished with Jay, I checked my daughter Bean, and later Jeremy. Only Jay seemed to have them. Even with my considerable faith in my own invincibility, I didn't think this would last long. Of course the rest of us would get them.

But we didn't, and after that night Jay appeared free of them, too. For a few days, I kept my guard up, checking all of us at least once a day. Something didn't feel right. I wondered what my problem was. Did I want a worse case of lice? I couldn't shake the feeling we were getting off too easy, that not finding lice or nits was proof of nothing but my inability to spot them. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

When I found nothing, I began to relax, sometimes for 2 or 3 days at a time. But my suspicions always returned. Jay would scratch his head, and I would spring back into action. During this time I built up quite an arsenal of both knowledge and materials. A robotic comb that electrocuted live lice on contact, but did nothing for nits. A finer nit comb. Vinegar, olive oil, tea tree oil, coconut oil. In a moment of self-doubt, I even bought some useless lice-killing shampoo. In my spare time, I read about lice.

Maybe once a week, I would find 1-3 lice or nits on Jay's head. No more, and never both at the same time. I would take the opportunity to check everyone's head and do more laundry. Other than that, things went on as usual.

On the Saturday at the end of my kids' spring break, I attended my book club. Jay stayed home with Jeremy, and Bean went to a friend's house.

When I got into the car to leave book club, I saw a text I hadn't noticed before. It was Bean's friend's mother, asking if Bean's finger was okay. This was the first I'd heard of it, so I called Jeremy, who told me she had burnt her finger with a glue gun, but seemed fine. I relayed this message to the other mother and didn't give it another thought. I'd gotten mild burns from my glue gun before. No big deal.

But arriving home, it was clear that Bean was in pain. The burn looked unpleasant, but not serious. I encouraged her to soak it in cold water, gave her extra hugs and TV, and assumed it would be better the next day. This continued for several days, during which time Jeremy, who is also what Gray's Anatomy would call "my person," left town for work.

Every little thing seemed to go wrong. The cat knocked over the garbage. The kids fought, and they were more demanding than I felt they had any right to be at their ages (10 and 6, I thought! Hardly babies). Small stuff, but I am woefully terrible at handling small misfortunes. I can't say I'd prefer a large one, but I do seem to bear them better. I was terribly on edge, taking deep breaths constantly to avoid snapping at my poor, innocent children.

Bean continued to complain of the pain in her finger until I finally let her stay home from school and took her to the doctor. Second degree burn, beginning to get infected, might even require physical therapy to regain full range of motion. I was batting 1,000.

I struggled to suppress my own stress and sympathize with Bean. Of course it would be wrong to make it all about me. "Your severe burn is very stressful for me, so you'll have to excuse my meanness."

So instead of coming out and telling her that, I simply demonstrated it with my actions. I tried, but I wasn't fooling anyone, least of all Bean. After we picked Jay up from school, I decided that what I needed was to walk a labyrinth. Yes, that was all! I'd walk a labyrinth, and I'd be fine. I took the kids to a playground that had one, and and asked them to give me five or ten minutes.

They didn't. Bean in particular kept yelling for me, asking about all manner of things. I couldn't shake the feeling that she just couldn't stand to see me doing anything that wasn't about her. Finally, Jay had to go to the bathroom. The playground didn't have one, so I abandoned the labyrinth, and we left. Although he obviously wasn't kidding about needing a bathroom, he complained bitterly about leaving. My resent-o-meter was going off.

That evening, I thought we'd watch a movie and relax. But as the kids were setting it up, I knocked a dish off the kitchen counter. It hit the floor and shattered. As I went to clean it up, the phone rang.

I hate the phone. I have always hated the phone. After Bean was born, this hatred took on a life of it's own. It's unreasonable as hell, but the phone ringing makes me want to kill whoever is calling, regardless of the reason. I have to take a deep breath and steady my voice before answering. If things are going well, I think "God, you just couldn't let me have a moment's peace, could you?" If they're not, and at this moment they weren't, I can hardly contain my rage.

If I had been able to walk that labyrinth, I thought, I would have been able to handle this (I assure you, I was wrong). Suddenly, I found myself talking instead of thinking, and then yelling instead of talking.

"I wanted to walk that labyrinth, but you just could't give me five minutes," I started in. Belligerent. Nasty. My rant lasted maybe 30 seconds, but I swear it was just awful. Much worse than I'm making it out to be. Bean ran to her room and started sobbing.

I felt terrible. I got the impression that I'd been making her feel awful all day. Probably even longer than that. Maybe her entire life. My yelling at her was just the final straw. Her finger still hurt. Couldn't I have let go of a little obnoxious behavior from 3 hours ago?

I followed her, and we talked. I could barely keep from crying myself, but tried hard not to. Why should she have to try to make me feel better? I was the one who had hurt her.

We walked back downstairs, where I found more lice on Jay. Not many, but they were there. I didn't find any on Bean or I, and I might have been grateful for having a mild case. But I wasn't. I was truly losing it, and a part of me had begun to feel like these lice were actually conspiring to gaslight me.

That was it, I decided. We were dropping out of life for the rest of the week. I had looked into professional lice removal, but it seemed too expensive. Fuck it, I decided. We're going to Lice Knowing You tomorrow.

I posted a stressed-out status update on Facebook, and my mother-in-law texted - texted, thank God! - and offered to take the kids for dinner the following evening.

First thing the next morning, I made an appointment. The only available salon was 45 minutes away, but I didn't care. I fed the cats, noting to myself that I would need to get cat food on my way home. Anticipating it might take hours, I instructed the kids to fill their backpacks with toys, books, and colored pencils, and drove to an old apartment building that was now full of offices. Apparently, this was the place.

It was very discrete. It took me a moment to decipher that I wanted to dial the number for "LKY." It rang, and a voice asked, "Do you have an appointment?"

"Yes, for noon," I answered.

Without another word, she buzzed me in.

That was the tipping point. I suddenly felt like I was in an impossibly tame Quentin Tarantino movie, going to see a top secret fixer of problems I'd learned about through an underground source. We walked to the appropriate office, but it was locked. The hall was full of signs demanding silence, and stressing that cell phones were strictly forbidden. After knocking repeatedly, I didn't care anymore. I just didn't care. No more Ms. Goody-Goody-By-the-Rules-Rule-Follower. I pulled out my phone and called. Nothing.

Five minutes later, a woman in her 20s casually strolled over, explaining she'd been on her lunch break. She was tall and gamine, with short, dark hair and big, brown doe eyes. I'd been expecting a middle-aged woman in a long skirt, something like how I picture Old Mother Hubbard. My awful mood hadn't entirely abated. I hated this hipster lunch-eater. Lunch! Didn't she realize this was an emergency? Did she also have a solid gold easy chair at home (because de-lousing people is how the rich love to spend their days, am I right)? Or was I simply realizing I'd forgotten to give my children lunch?

The second we stepped into the room, my stress somehow dissolved. The hipster turned out to be a very friendly mother of two young daughters. She inspired my total confidence. Bean and I were fine, and she dealt with Jay's head in half an hour. She was fantastic. I paid and tipped her well, in part to make up for the mean things I'd thought about her. The kids and I headed to a popular nearby park.

At the park, everyone we encountered spoke excellent English, but with a faint accent. I pegged one man for Russian, another for Swedish, one woman for Dutch, and finally one more woman as possibly Kiwi.

We spotted Russian Guy first. He had the tiniest dog you ever did see. I guessed she was a chihuahua puppy. The kids bounded over to ask if they could pet her, interrupting Swedish Guy, who in retrospect was probably using the dog as an excuse to talk to Russian Guy.

I thought Swedish Guy seemed to bristle, and guessed it was because he was jealous we were lavishing more attention on the small dog than his own. I made an effort to throw some compliments her way.  Only later did I realize the kids were cockblocking him. Although complimenting his dog had seemed to help, I know now that had less to do with my identifying and remedying the problem, and more to do with the the difficulty of being openly hostile toward someone who is complimenting your dog.

Russian Guy, on the other hand, didn't mind at all. He wasn't trying to get rid of Swedish Guy, but he was indifferent to him. He was used to the attention his dog attracted, and loved it. A fan was a fan. We were all the same to him.

"Her name is Nutella. She's a Russian Toy Terrier, and she was the runt of the litter, so she's about half the size of a normal one," he bragged.

Nutella was 3, and her owner pulled out his phone to show us all baby pictures. She looked exactly like a 6-inch-tall deer. Normally I'm not wild about dogs, and I'm awfully politically correct about pet-ownership. No fancy animals, and no animals that shouldn't be in captivity. As a general rule, I think they should come from the Humane Society. But I secretly long for an exotic pet. Specifically, I want a dik-dik. "Maybe..." I started to think.

When we parted, Russian Guy gave us Nutella's card, and urged us to follow her on Facebook or Twitter. I just might.

Jay, Bean and I continued on until we came to some climbable trees, where a few other children were playing. I sat down a few feet from Dutch Mom and Kiwi Mom. They didn't try to engage me in awkward small talk, and I was deeply grateful. They seemed relaxed, maybe even happy.

"None of this would be happening if I were Dutch or Kiwi, and even if it did, I'd just take it as it came. Like those amazing women I know nothing about," I thought. Oh, well. I took out a book, and was happy enough to read in the sun.

The kids began to bring us things they were finding. A high-heeled shoe. An earring. A small talisman. Dutch Mom summoned her kids and told us all in a faintly-accented deadpan, "I'm out. If your kids find anything else after this, it's your police report to file."

I went to find my own kids, and found that the treasures they were finding were coming from a cluster of homemade alters set up near the trees. But I only felt a little bad about the kids disturbing them, because they were in a public park where kids play.

It was time to get the kids to Grandma. I gathered them up, figuring with traffic, we'd just make it before she had to leave to pick up my father-in-law. But we hadn't gone more than a mile when I spotted it. The mystery soda machine I'd been promising to take my kids to for weeks. It was the furthest thing from my mind, but there it was, right on the sidewalk.

I pulled over abruptly, and started hunting for change so the kids and I could get sodas. I only had enough for two. Oh, well. I really only wanted water anyway.

The kids gleefully traipsed over to the machine, and when they came back, one of the sodas they'd gotten had three quarters taped on the bottom of it - a prize redeemable for one free soda. I have dodged some serious bullets in my life, but I've never wanted to credit a guardian angel. It seems narcissistic, considering all the people who didn't dodge bullets. This was the first and only time I've experienced divine intervention. True, I didn't really want soda, and I certainly didn't want the syrupy Hawaiian Punch I received (who knew they still made it?), but that wasn't the point. The ghost saw a struggling mama, and it did what it could. It's just a crappy old vending machine with the good fortune to be owned by a whimsical marketing genius, you say? That we happened to score the winning soda was just a coincidence? It being haunted is a social-media-fueled whispering campaign? Shut up and let me have this.

As we drove away, Jay called out, "I love you, haunted soda machine!"

It only took a few minutes, but it was a crucial few minutes that caused me to hit traffic, which made us miss grandma (it was worth it). We'd have to wait outside until she got home. Which would have been fine, but Jay had to go to the bathroom. Badly.

"Go by the tree!" I told him. He was visibly desperate, but he wouldn't do it. Nor would he try to get into their back yard and go there. Finally, it occurred to me. Once, long ago, I had been given a key. The memory was fuzzy, but I started testing my keys, and viola! We were in.

Except we weren't. Although he knows them well and has visited that house literally hundreds of times in his life, Jay didn't feel right about walking in when they weren't there. "They're your grandparents!" I implored. "They would not want you standing outside their open front door having to pee!"

"I'll go," Bean said, and sashayed past us. She sat down at the table and set to work on the comic book she'd started writing at Lice Knowing You.

It took some convincing, but I finally got Jay to go inside. He wouldn't allow us to turn on any lights or touch anything. He used the bathroom, and hurried back out to the front porch, where he was not too well-mannered to start repeatedly throwing himself against the glass screen door out of boredom. I lured him into the back yard, where we played until Grandma got home. In exchange for my children, my Mormon mother-in-law handed me two valium.

I was on my way. If I were exaggerating about any of this, I would say I forgot to pick up the cat food. But I didn't.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Socially Awkward Penguin Meets Socially Awkward Penguin

I see her next to the sample table at Trader Joe's. She's an older woman, maybe in her late 50s or early 60s. Blonde, well dressed. A real class act. If I had one criticism, it would be that she has butter on her face.

This cannot stand. Someone has to tell her. But I can't, because my mouth is full of the same buttered scone that sullied her face. I look around, hoping someone else will notice. No one does. How can you people just stand there and do nothing? How long can it take to chew and swallow a bite-sized sample of scone? Apparently a while. She had a head start of perhaps 30 seconds, and I'm afraid she'll walk away before I can tell her.

I catch her attention and mime wiping something off the corner of my mouth. This ignites a dormant insecurity in her that had been brewing just below the surface, but she has no idea what I'm referring to.

After what seems like hours, I finish chewing and tell her, "You have butter on your face."

She wipes it off, but her insecurity has not been soothed. I feel bad. Should I not have told her? No, that's crazy. No decent person would let anyone - anyone - go around like that.

"Um, can I ask you something?" she asks.

"Sure," I say tentatively. What have I done?

"This is probably the weirdest question a stranger will ever ask you, but can you see the spot on my tooth?" she pulls back her upper lip to reveal a tooth with a small white spot. The tooth isn't a molar, but it's far enough back that she'd have to be grinning like an absolute maniac for anyone to see it.

"Not unless you point it out," I say.

She's visibly relieved.

"I just had dental work done," she explains. "The dentist said that extra white spot would go away after a while, but when you pointed, I thought it must be noticeable after all."

"Oh, God. No. No! I would never point at a spot on someone's tooth. Not that I could see it anyway. But I'm not a jerk. I would never!"

Mercifully for both of us, we part ways. I'm glad she was a fellow socially awkward penguin, because it's always a relief to find one in an unlikely package. I'm glad for her too, because I imagine she must have been glad I wasn't some smooth operator. Still, it made the whole scene infinitely more painful than it should have been. Despite the distraction, I didn't fail to notice the scone was pretty good.